Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Science Fiction Tropes: Humanoid Aliens and Faster than Light Travel

By D.G. McCabe

I may or may not have mentioned on this blog that, concurrently to this project, I’ve also been working on a science fiction novel for quite some time.  Recently, I was browsing the internet, looking for a few ideas and I came across two concept that, apparently, are on the outs within the science fiction writing community.  The first is “humanoid aliens,” the second is “faster than light travel.”  I’m going address both these concepts one at a time to explain why I don’t think there is a good justification for eliminating either concept as a science fiction concept.

Humanoid Aliens

We all know the reason why Star Trek aliens look like humans – and no, not the canonical explanation put forth in Star Trek: The Next Generation – I mean the real reason.   The budget for a 1960’s TV show wasn’t exactly robust, so Gene Roddenberry and friends had to make do with what they had, which wasn’t much.  For the sake of the continuity of the series, the aliens were mostly kept humanoid.  Star Wars and other films/television series have mostly humanoid aliens, although there is far more diversity than in Star Trek.

I have read a few articles, and the comments to those articles, which find humanoid aliens to be implausible – the elements of soft science fiction and fantasy.  The justification goes that just because life evolved a certain way on Earth, doesn’t mean that life would evolve that way on other planets.  In fact, judging by what we know about our own Solar System and problems posed by the Fermi Paradox (odds are we should have encountered some aliens by now, why haven’t we?) it appears unlikely that aliens would look like us.

I take exception to stating that humanoid, sentient aliens are implausible.  First, look at the sheer number of “humanoid” animals on Earth (if we count anything that walks upright as “humanoid”).  There are all other primates, bears, kangaroos, penguins, meerkats, and prairie dogs to name a few.  “Humanoid” seems like a pretty low bar to hit when describing another animal.

Secondly, and more importantly, if we use the same standard in which we judge other science fiction concepts (hard and grounded in real science versus soft and grounded in fantasy), it follows that humanoid aliens are more plausible than not.  First, we have to assume that Earth is not that unusual or unique.  If life developed on Earth, it would likely develop on planets similar to Earth.

If life develops on Earth-like planets, it follows that it would develop in a similar fashion as on Earth.  To assume otherwise would be to say that the laws of chemistry and physics are consistent throughout the universe, but biology is “crazy” and anything can happen.  The potential for mutation is limited to what actually works in an environment.  If a planet is similar to Earth, it follows that the environment wouldn’t be so radically different that these mutations wouldn’t follow a similar path.

We then have to think about why humans are sentient and have civilization and other species, say, dolphins, do not.  The answer is basic and well known – we have hands and dolphins do not.  Other factors include our relatively long life spans compared to most animals and our adaptability to different environments.  In short, if an alien species evolved to a level of sentience on an Earth-like planet, the most logical result would be that they would generally look humanoid, if by humanoid we mean a creature with its hand free and a head on its shoulders.

Faster than Light Travel

This one is trickier from a scientific point of view.  According to Einstein’s theory of general relativity, matter cannot exceed the speed of light.  The piece of matter would need infinite energy in order to do so. There are a few theories out there using wormholes and warp bubbles that would work around this, but these methods would require an amount of energy that may be impossible to generate.  In other words, it looks like we’re kind of stuck.

First of all, let’s explore why we need faster than light travel in science fiction.  Without it, you are stuck with telling stories that are: 1) mostly about humans; 2) mostly about the effects of time dilation (time moves at different speeds at different accelerations and locations); or, 3) stories about humans experiencing the effects of time dilation. Speculative scenarios involving humanity’s place in a larger universe are effectively off limits, since there is no larger universe that is practically accessible.  You need faster than light travel to enlarge the scope of the story you are trying to tell.

Granted you can tell a lot of good stories about humans, time dilation, and the effects of time dilation on humans, but why limit yourself?  Yes you would need an explanation as to why this thing exists that shouldn’t – a thing whose existence would challenge our very understanding about either general relativity and/or the production of energy. But who says there won’t be such a discovery?  In all of human history there is only one Albert Einstein and one Issac Newton after all, why not someone to come up with something that solves the problem of practical interstellar travel?  My point is that, just because we don’t know something now, or it would challenge our understanding about how the universe works, doesn’t mean that someone won’t think of it.  In conclusion, I don’t think “well that’s not how the universe works based on our current understanding of science” is a good reason to categorize all speculative fiction with solution to the faster than light travel problem as “fantasy,” as long as the solution has some grounding in reality.  After all, what’s the difference between that, and assuming that a sentient alien species can evolve on an Earth-like planet that looks absolutely nothing like what evolved that way on our planet?

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe

The Empire Strikes Back and the Science Fiction Genre

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

1980, Irvin Kershner, USA

“The force is with you young Skywalker.  But you are not a Jedi yet.”

Most people that are familiar with the Star Wars series consider the Empire Strikes Back (“Empire”) to be the best film of the six.  Once in a while you’ll run into someone who finds the original Star Wars (1977) or Return of the Jedi (1983) to be their favorite, but I find it hard to argue against Empire.

And why not?  Empire succeeds in everything that it tries to do.  It moves the story along from the first Star Wars film, sets up a convincing love story, trains Luke (Mark Hamill) as a Jedi, builds tension, and ends on the perfect note to set up the next film.  There are none of the plot inconsistencies, or unsuccessful attempts at humor that you find in some of the other films in the series and far fewer issues with the dialogue.

So if Empire is an extremely successful and well made film – where does it stack up against the classics of the science fiction genre?  I would first argue that science fiction is such a versatile genre that it is really like comparing apples and oranges, but let’s give it a try anyway.

Besides Empire, three other great science fiction films include 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968),  Solaris (1972),  and Ghost in the Shell (1995). First, 2001 is a story about mankind’s place in the universe, contains groundbreaking visuals, and gives the audience a chance to soak in the concepts of the film with its long shots and minimal use of dialogue.  It’s nowhere near as entertaining as Empire (I personally find it boring), but it isn’t intended to be – it’s intended to make you think about reality whereas Empire exists in a self-contained, fantasy universe.

Solaris is about human isolation, nostalgia, and loneliness.  It is the story of a cosmonaut who is tempted by a living planet to exist in his past rather than his present.  It isn’t so much a science fiction film as a fever dream.  Empire isn’t interested in peering deep into your soul the way Solaris is, and with good reason.  Could you imagine Han Solo (Harrison Ford) getting nostalgic about, well, anything?

Ghost in the Shell, of course, is not about a fantastic galaxy far, far away, but about our present relationship with technology.  It is a commentary on the line between man and machine, and, at base, what makes us human.  Granted it has a lot more action than Solaris or 2001, but its psychological themes are in some ways encompassing of both films.  Like 2001, Ghost in the Shell asks to what extent can we become dependent on machines/computers and still be human? Like Solaris, it explores isolation by asking if we can have constant access to the “net” yet still feel isolated?

Is Empire a “great” film?  Like 2001 or Solaris or Ghost in the Shell, it is well made and executes its goals without obvious flaws.  The issue, I believe, is that Empire’s success occurs in the mythological universe of Star Wars.  Rather than provide commentary on the present human condition, it instead builds upon a mythological story filled with basic and accessible themes about good and evil, fathers and sons, and friendships helping us overcome adversity.  It doesn’t reach for the philosophical as much as these other films, but that’s not a flaw in my opinion.

Too often we are compelled to assign “greatness” to the most philosophical works and dismiss films with simpler themes as mere entertainment.  I would argue that a film’s “greatest” exists in how well it achieves its objectives – not by what those objectives are.  If you use that as a measure, indeed Empire is a great work of science fiction and one of the greatest science fiction films ever made.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

Evil Robots!!!

More often than not, the robot comes to us in the movies as a villain.   However, an examination of these so called evil robots reveals that the evil robots are not always as evil as they appear. Take for instance, five movie robots, starting at the beginning with Fritz Lang’s “Maschinenmensch” or “Machine Man” from 1927’s Metropolis.


As background, the Machine Man was developed by the mad scientist Rotwang as tool of revenge.  Rotwang uses it to incite violence and chaos.  While the Machine Man is clearly used for evil purposes, it could be argued that if it were programmed not to obey a mad scientist but rather to, say, help old ladies cross the street, we wouldn’t think of it as an evil robot.  Clearly that would make for a very boring movie.  Let’s move on.


Certainly HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) qualifies as an evil robot – right?  It’s even listed in AFI’s ‘100 years” series as one of the top villains in movie history.  But is HAL really evil?  In order to complete its mission, to trace the signal being projected by the Monolith, it decides to eliminate all obstacles (in this case the humans).  But is HAL’s mission and the resulting evolutionary progress for mankind worth the lives of the two cranky astronauts?  If you argue yes, than HAL is not evil at all.  Machiavellian perhaps, but not evil.


Certainly the Machines from the Matrix (1999) are evil right?  After all they enslave humanity to either a lifetime of being plugged into a video game or eating gruel and fighting the machines in an endless war.  But this line of thought conveniently forgets that the humans built the machines to enslave them, and then tried to destroy them all with nuclear weapons (forgetting, apparently, that nuclear weapons would destroy everything else too).  Also, it appears all life on Earth has been obliterated except for the humans, so the machines and their massive game are the only things keeping the humans alive.


Certainly Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is evil right?  After all he tries to destroy humanity.  And just look at him in the poster!  He’s kidnapping a scantily clad woman!  How evil is that?!? That’s a very human-centric way of thinking about it though.  Apparently the other civilizations in the galaxy don’t like our penchant for violent conflict and want to preemptively take us out a potential threat.  Unfair, perhaps, but to them, not especially evil.


Finally!  Megatron (Transformers (2007)) is definitely evil!  It’s actually pretty hard to argue against this, partly because Michael Bay’s “films” have about as much subtlety as a jackhammer.

Anyway that’s enough evil robots for today!

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

Metropolis (1927)


Directed by Fritz Lang

Germany, 1927, Silent, 148 min

“No! I must always stay at the Machine!” – Georgey 11811 to Freder Fredersen

Metropolis is one of the most important films ever made, but in many ways it is an outlier.   Fritz Lang (1890-1976) was far more interested in making dark, seedy, modern crime dramas than he was in dabbling in dystopian science fiction.  Lang himself never cared for what many consider to be his masterpiece, and the film itself has been subject to all manner of neglect, censorship, and re-editing.  It was once thought that about a third of the film had been lost forever, but in 2008 a nearly complete negative was discovered in Argentina, and thanks to the F.W. Murnau Foundation (http://www.murnau-stiftung.de/en/01-00-00-stiftung.html), a version of the film that comprises around 95% of Lang’s original can be viewed today (the original film was 153 minutes, the restoration, including inserted credits, is 148 minutes).

That was the version that I watched this morning.  The plot itself is predictable by modern standards (but only because it has been copied so many times) and the central message of the film is a bit simplistic and borderline naive.  That being said, those are the only weaknesses that I can think of, and the film continues to mesmerize 85 years after it was filmed.

Lang’s dark vision of the future takes place in a city where a vast system of machines sustain the prosperity of those who inhabit it, or more specifically, its above ground portions.  There are stadiums and nightclubs, pleasure gardens and terraces, and the people who inhabit these locales are well dressed, well fed, and happy.

This is not the case for the workers who operate the machines. These men and women toil ten hours a day in exhausting and repetitive jobs.  They work non-stop and in hellish conditions, risking certain death if they make any mistakes.  When they are not working, they are forced to live underground in squalid poverty.   The life in “The Depths” is a constant nightmare – a darkness of exhaustion, starvation, and isolation.

The hero of the story, Freder (Gustav Frohlich) is the son of the city’s ruler, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel).  One day while he is enjoying his, ahem, female companions (no, that’s not a type-o, there are more than one), Freder’s pleasure garden is crashed by the beautiful Maria (Brigitte Helm) and a group poor children from The Depths whom she has brought to the surface on an apparent visit.  After she and the children are thrown out by security, Freder, who is enchanted by Maria, darts from his pleasure garden to follow her.

While searching for Maria, he witnesses a terrible industrial accident.  An exhausted worker makes a mistake, and causes the massive machine he is operating to partially explode, killing several workers. To demonstrate Freder’s horror, Lang provides us with a hallucination of the workers being thrown into a monstrous oven.   Although the film is silent, Lang’s imagery allowed me to imagine the screams of the workers so clearly that their sound could have scarcely added to the horror.

It is the emotions of the workers themselves, not Freder, that drive the course of the rest of the film.  Maria brings hope to the workers by speaking of  a coming “Mediator” who will bring harmony and understanding between the rulers and the workers. She hopes that she has found that Mediator in Freder. In contrast, Fredersen and his ally, the mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Logge), have created a “machine man” to manipulate the workers.  Fredersen hopes to use the automaton to incite the workers’ anger in a plot to maintain control over them, while Rotwang has his own, more devious objectives.

Many silent films have a hard time holding the attention of modern audiences.  Metropolis does not suffer from this problem, and I don’t think the film would be greatly improved by adding dialogue.  The film moves along with such fluidity that the audience doesn’t have time to consider its weaknesses or hunt for clues as to what would inspire films such as Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, Gattaca, Dark City, the Matrix, and hundreds of others.  Despite the opinions of its author, it remains a landmark work that every fan of film should view at least once.


You may like Metropolis if: You enjoy dystopian science fiction films or adventure films, you are interested in where the techniques used in many of your favorite science fiction films come from, or you are in the mood for a high quality, emotionally charged film with high artistic merit.

You may not like Metropolis if: You absolutely hate all science fiction or silent films, or you get really annoyed with films that use somewhat predictable plot devices, even if the movie is the first time those plot devices were used.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe